The Rundown: Time for Bryant to Lead Off, Heyward’s Power Outage

I tell you what, there’s not much better for a writer than going in to hit “Publish” and finding out someone else has already fired off a similar piece. But Jesse Rogers left plenty of meat on this here leadoff bone, so I think you may find my blathering worthwhile even if you’ve already read his column.

Jon Jay and Ben Zobrist have handled a majority of the leadoff duties here lately, but neither has really set the world on fire. In point of fact, generating production from the top spot in the order has been more like trying to ignite wet tinder with a spark from a hand drill. So maybe it’s time to switch things up again and give someone else a shot.

I’m speaking, of course, about penciling Kris Bryant in there as the Cubs’ leadoff hitter. It wouldn’t be the first time Joe Maddon has put one of his run-producing mashers at the top, beginning the season with Kyle Schwarber and slotting Anthony Rizzo there during a stagnant period. Not only does Bryant have a higher OBP than either of those players, but he’s got far more speed. And he’s a guy you need in the lineup every day, thus solidifying the order inasmuch as that’s even possible.

Bryant has a .414 wOBA and 156 wRC+ when batting with the bases empty and carries a .311/.431/.600 slash when doing so with no outs. That doesn’t necessarily mean strictly when he’s leading off an inning, but I don’t think excluding the times he’s batted after a home run cleared the bases ahead of him will skew things too heavily.

Cubs leadoff hitters have compiled an overall .243/.321/.429 slash with a .320 wOBA and 95 wRC+ this season, so you can already see how Bryant would be a huge upgrade. Besides, and this might sound like heresy, maybe it’d be a little better for Bryant as well. The knock on him all season is that he hasn’t been performing well with RISP, but the thing you need to realize is that the reigning MVP has gotten very few chances in those sitautions, relatively speaking.

Bryant has only 129 plate appearances with runners in scoring position this season, tied for 84th in MLB and 55 PAs behind league-leader Paul Goldschmidt. Who’s Bryant tied with? Cody Bellinger, who has 125 fewer total plate appearances, and Jason Heyward, who is Jason Heyward and has 174 fewer appearances. Batting leadoff will hurt KB’s chances to drive in runs, you say? The Cubs have done a pretty good job of limiting them as it is.

Then there’s the matter of how he’s being pitched, which is to say that he isn’t. Being pitched to, I mean. Only 43.4 percent of the pitches Bryant sees are in the strike zone, which might not seem like a really low total when you consider that he’s tied with seven others at that mark and that 53 players see fewer strikes. Then again, we need to think about why most of those guys don’t get pitches to hit.

Joey Gallo (35.9) and Javy Baez (40.4) are ranked Nos. 1 and 10 when it comes to seeing the fewest pitches in the zone, and they come in at 1 (Baez – 19.2) and 2 (Gallo 19.0) in terms of highest swinging strike percentage. When you know a hitter is going to chase, you don’t need to throw strikes.

Of the 60 players tied with or above Bryant in terms of fewest percentage of strikes seen, only 10 have a lower percentage of swinging strikes. I’m not going to run through the list, but suffice to say we’re talking about a pretty solid group of hitters. These are guys who don’t see strikes because they’re dangerous and they have to be tip-toed around. One way to prevent at least some of that in Bryant’s case would be to put him at the top of the order.

Though we won’t suddenly see him getting tons of plate-splitting meatballs, neither will pitchers be as able to work around him. And having a runner on would allow Kyle Schwarber to hit against a standard defensive configuration more often. Well, if he actually gets into the lineup and is in the two-hole, neither of which is given by any stretch.

Such a move might also necessitate another, which would be to silde the pitcher back up to eighth in order to put an actual hitter ahead of KB. Either way, I’ve convinced myself that it’s something that needs to happen. At the very least, it can’t be worse than what the Cubs are getting from the top of the order right now.

Wayward Heyward

Brendan Miller will have more on Heyward’s disheartening offensive performance, which has been buoyed/masked somewhat by a better batting average over the last month. However, there’s something really wrong when a guy can bat .288 and only post a wRC+ of 93 in that same time. Heyward’s .318 wOBA is 45 points lower than his OBP over his most recent 91 plate appearances, which, yeah, that’s very bad.

Dude has lost all but the dying vestiges of power in his swing, leading to a .060 ISO (measurement of raw power, how often a guy hits for extra bases) that ranks 175th among 177 qualified MLB hitters over the last 30 days. He has three extra-base hits (two 2B, one HR) in that time and only six (four 2B, two HR) since July 24 (156 PA).

I understand that his glove is very valuable in right field, but Heyward is not even an average offensive player right now. His 84 wRC+ in the second half is boosted by a strong start after the break and a good run of late, but there’s a whole lot of awful in the middle. I’m always railing against people who look only at aggregate performance, though, so maybe he can turn it around my maintaining current trends.

What worries me most, though, is the complete lack of power and the resultant inability to create runs and impact the offense. Running him out there every day as part of a lineup that has frequently struggled to score is unconscionable at this point. I get that Heyward is making a ton of money and has a great glove, I just don’t see how he’s getting consistent at-bats when other players have so much more potential to generate wins.

More news and notes

  • The Brewers lost to the Pirates last night, which was nice.
  • With Bradley Zimmer out for the season, the Indians are planning to use Jason Kipnis in the outfield upon his own return from the DL. And they may even put the erstwhile second baseman in center, which could be interesting.
  • Tigers righty Michael Fulmer will undergo ulnar nerve transposition surgery, but should be back in time for spring training. You may recall reports claiming that the Cubs had offered Kyle Schwarber straight-up for Fulmer, which is silly because there’s no way this front office would be dumb enough to think Detroit would agree to that.
  • Rockies starter Kyle Freeland left last night’s game after being hit in the pitching shoulder/neck area by a 115 mph come-backer off the bat of J.D. Martinez.
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